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(Pocket-lint) - One of the most frequently asked questions about VPN (Virtual Private Networking) services is whether they’ll change your IP address – and if they do, what that actually means. Let’s look into both.

But first, let’s discover what an IP address is and why it’s important.

What is an IP address?

Everything you connect to a network needs to have a unique address so that it can send and receive data over that network. On the internet, that address is an IP address; the IP stands for Internet Protocol. Every website, every connected computer, every smartphone app needs an IP address in order to work.

How do I get an IP address?

For home and personal users, your IP address is given to you automatically by your internet service provider (ISP). If you have a router, the ISP will give it its own IP address and that’ll be shared with all the devices it’s connected to (your router then gives each of those devices its own IP address and routes each data packet to the appropriate device, which is why it’s called a router). If it’s a stand-alone device such as a smartphone it’ll be unique to that device.

What can other people learn from my IP address?

Your IP address can be used to identify who your internet service provider is and where you are. That location varies from internet provider to internet provider, so for example our IP address just tells you that we’re somewhere in the UK; other ISPs have specific IP address blocks for specific parts of the country, so your IP address may say what city you’re in.

Why does your IP address matter?

Locating you based on your IP address is commonly used to restrict content. Those “this content is not available in this territory” messages on YouTube, or the “this page is not available to users in the European Union” pages on websites? They’re identifying your location from your IP address and shutting you down.

IP addresses are also harvested by advertising networks and used alongside other identifiers such as tracking cookies to build a picture of your browsing habits.

And IP addresses can be used in subpoenas that compel internet service providers to revel the identity of their customers. That’s a real concern in repressive regimes where simply criticising the authorities can put you in prison.

What does a VPN do to your IP address?

It gives you a different one. That’s because when you’re connected via a VPN your internet data doesn’t go directly to the site or service you’re visiting; it goes to the VPN server, and that server then connects to the site or service (sometimes via multiple other servers for even more privacy). The site or service sees the IP of the server, not you – so while you may be browsing from Birmingham, Belfast or Boston the site believes you’re in Bangalore, Bulgaria or Belgium.

What benefits do I get from having a different IP address?

You’re harder to trace, harder to track and you can access content that’s only available to people connecting from the place you appear to be connecting from.

Does changing my IP address protect my privacy?

Yes, but only as part of a wider security strategy: if you’re zooming around the internet on a VPN but you’re logged into Facebook or downloading malware-stuffed software from dark corners of the Web you’re undoing the VPN’s best work. If privacy’s important that means browser-based security and steering well clear of social networks too.

What happens when I disconnect from the VPN?

You’ll go back to sharing your real IP address with the sites or services you visit.

Can’t the authorities just get my real IP address from the VPN provider?

Not usually. If you’ve chosen the best VPN service it will have a no-logs policy: that means it doesn’t keep records of anything, including customer IP addresses. As soon as you disconnect, the VPN service forgets you were ever there.

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Writing by Carrie Marshall. Editing by Dan Grabham.